I had an interesting companion on my recent trip to California: Poisoning the Press, Mark Feldstein’s new book about the quarter-century feud between Richard Nixon and columnist Jack Anderson. Anderson lived until 2005, but is now quite forgotten, even though he once had a near-monopoly on investigative political journalism in the United States and has (along with his mentor Drew Pearson) no conceivable rival as the creator of the form.
If scruples were a breakfast cereal, Nixon and Anderson couldn’t have come up with a spoonful between the two of them. Anderson, a pure entrepreneur who syndicated his own work and had no editor, recognized hardly any ethical limits to his professional activity. Could one say that he was not above stealing secret documents, committing blackmail, spreading sexual slurs, perpetrating bribery, and publishing unfounded speculation? That would be like saying that a surgeon is not above cutting people open. Yet Anderson probably did more good than harm until his bundle of instincts and tricks began to fail him in his fifties. To some, the Washington press still seems purblind without him.
Nixon and Anderson were both products of California, and were branded by it. Both came from dirt-poor families who belonged to religious minorities, and who found disillusionment rather than the American dream in the far West. Nixon, a Quaker, was actuated in everything he did by a superego with a terrifying, suffocating grip; he wasn’t personally a god-botherer, but the “fear of God”, an omnipresent God of correction and retribution, is a good metaphor for the dominant element in his psyche. Anderson, by contrast, was an observant Mormon of stiffly upright personal habits who used a network of powerful Saints to help get scoops.
When Nixon, as president, needed to find a job for his lazy nitwit brother Donald, his people chose to lean on Mormon hotel magnate J.W. Marriott. Nixon was soon horrified to learn that Don, whose shady dealings with Howard Hughes had landed Nixon in Pearson’s column long before and arguably cost him the presidency in 1960, had arranged for a face-to-face meeting with Anderson. Thanks to some eleventh-hour spin, Anderson’s article ended up helping to insulate the administration, representing Donald as a freelancing, happy-go-lucky goofball whose brother had washed his hands of him. I reached this point in Feldstein’s book in the lobby of the L.A. Marriott, reading the tale under the watchful eye of old J.W. himself.
The California of today endows its citizens with complacency, optimism, and tolerance; the people I rapped with around the state wouldn’t recognize Nixon, or Anderson, as belonging to their species of humanity. The pair were creatures of a cruel, barren pre-aqueduct California that turned them loose on America like rodents in a sea of cheese. Feldstein’s outstanding book makes their confrontation seem inevitable, almost Shakespearean.
Anderson was the great thorn in the side of the Nixon cause until he blew the Watergate story (despite having it virtually gift-wrapped; he knew several of the burglars, and actually bumped into them at an airport while they were en route to the break-in). One of the more notable features of Poisoning the Press is that it takes the story that Nixon ordered Special Counsel Chuck Colson to plan the assassination of Anderson more seriously than previous Nixonologists have. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy, Feldstein points out, confirmed each other’s claims that they had orders from Colson to kill Anderson and that they actually put him under surveillance for the purpose. Liddy is widely seen as an absurd right-wing curio nowadays, but his testimony about the shady stuff he got up to as the leader of Nixon’s “Plumbers” has usually been borne out.
There is no tape or document that confirms Nixon’s knowledge of any plot to kill Anderson, but then, there’s no signed paper that says Hitler ordered the Holocaust. Would Colson have balked at killing a journalist? Today’s Jesus-freak Colson would be the first to admit that the answer was “no”; he’s the guy who wanted to firebomb the Brookings Institution. Could Colson have talked Nixon into giving him tacit approval to do it? Goading Nixon was practically his job description, and his skill at that job shaped American history. A full generation after Watergate, we’re still exploring the outer limits of what John Mitchell called the “White House Horrors”.